Two weeks ago I spoke at the Lafayette Rotary Club's weekly meeting and shared my thoughts on the role of Louisiana media in the post-Katrina and post-Rita era. I was a bit underdressed than most of the organization's invited speakers, as I wore a brightly colored shirt featuring hot peppers and electric guitars that I bought at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
I told the Rotary Club that I also wore the shirt two months ago when I was on the stage at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' annual conference in Little Rock, Ark. I was helping a good friend of mine, Michael Tisserand, who is the former editor of Gambit Weekly newspaper in New Orleans. Michael and his family evacuated to my house in Carencro after Katrina and stayed with my family for two months. Michael's wife, a pediatrician, lost her job when the owner of the clinic where she worked committed suicide a few months after Katrina. That's one of the reasons they left Louisiana and now live in Evanston, Ill. I miss them.
At the newspaper conference, Michael was asked to emcee an awards luncheon honoring the best alt-weekly journalism of the year. And he asked me to assist with a special part of his presentation. Between announcing the awards, Michael asked trivia questions about New Orleans and Louisiana. And I threw Mardi Gras beads, Hubig's pies and go-cups and delivered bottles of Abita Restoration Ale to the trivia winners.
The audience was filled with hundreds of newspaper editors and writers from around the country: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Montana, Texas ' just about every state was represented. And what Michael and I wanted to convey was that nearly a year after Katrina and Rita, Louisiana still needs attention and help in getting our plight and message out to the rest of the country. It's an unfortunate trait of the media business ' and often human nature ' that people often move on from a story or event after a short time. But Louisiana's rebuilding process is going to take years, maybe decades. We face serious challenges and questions concerning our economy, our school system, our insurance industry, the housing industry, coastal restoration, levee protection and more.
This has affected and tested Louisiana members of the media in ways we never could have imagined. There's a school of thought that the media should always be detached, always neutral, and simply write and report the facts. I've never subscribed to that theory, and my belief in the importance of impassioned, personal, and informed writing and editing became even more clear after Katrina and Rita unfolded. Three days after the storm hit, I received an e-mail from my good friend Keith Spera, who writes for The Times-Picayune. He had stayed in New Orleans to ride out the storm, and no one had heard from him since the ordeal began. Then this e-mail came through two nights after the levees broke:
"One of our remaining reporters, Gordon Russell, and a New York Times photographer drove into a gun battle between police and rioters today. The understandably edgy police ' they're literally fighting for their lives ' roughed up Gordon and the photographer. They're both trying to flee the city today.
"Gordon says the city's level of desperation and violence has increased dramatically since yesterday, when ex-TPer Natalie Pompilio and I were riding bikes all across Uptown and to the Convention Center. That would have been a bad thing to do today.
"It's the most horrific scene you can imagine. Where is the aid? Where is the military? Thousands of people at the convention center have received nothing ' no food, no water, no instructions, no authority ' for three days. Bodies lying in the street uncollected ' it's inconceivable that this is happening in the United States. I interviewed so many poor, elderly and frail people trying to make their way from Central City to the convention center. Many simply will not make it. Many others will be killed by looters who are running amok. I've cried several times, and have some more to go. It's the saddest, most pitiful thing I've ever seen. New Orleans needs a massive influx of military strength and supplies ' now."
One of the photographers with Keith that week was John McCusker. In an interview McCusker gave to a Brown University radio station last month, this is what he said: "It was the first [time] that I had covered anything that I knew exactly what most of those people were feeling, because I was feeling it myself. It wasn't like covering a fire where somebody else's house burned down, or somebody else's daughter dies in a car crash. This was my city, this was my town, this was my life. My house had 7 feet of water in it. You know, you're almost crying as you're taking the pictures."
"But he kept taking them," noted a recent edition of American Journalism Review. "He shot the Superdome, the French Quarter, the Ninth Ward, just following the evacuees. He photographed dead people, old people, drug addicts, children, escaped prisoners. He photographed looters at a Wal-Mart in the Garden District running with blenders and television sets. He photographed a police officer leaving the same Wal-Mart with armloads of CDs."
In the recent Aug. 9 edition of The Times-Picayune, the following story appeared:
A man who police said was depressed after he found out he didn't have enough insurance money to rebuild his Katrina-ravaged New Orleans home was arrested Tuesday after trying to get police to shoot him to death, New Orleans police said.
John McCusker, a photographer for The Times-Picayune, was taken into custody. Police said he will be charged, but were unsure what charges will be filed. He was being held under psychiatric observation.
"The individual is a really fine professional who was so depressed that he set out today to commit suicide by cop," said James Arey, commander of the police negotiation team during SWAT and other emergency situations.
"It was to the great credit of the police officers on this scene that they would not do what he wanted and kill him but instead apprehended him alive by Tasering him," Arey said.
Police said they noticed McCusker driving erratically near Napoleon Avenue and Baronne Street shortly before 7:30 p.m., but when they tried to pull him over, he drove away as they followed him. He struck several parked cars and was pulled over at the corner of Baronne and Upperline streets.
One police officer holding a gun knocked on the window of the driver's door and ordered him out of the car, police said. A second police officer was behind the car.
McCusker rolled the window down and said several times, "Just kill me, get it over with, kill me," Arey quoted him as saying.
When the officer did not shoot, McCusker put the car in reverse and pinned one of the officers between the rear bumper of his car and the officer's cruiser, police said. While pinned, the officer fired two shots at the tires of the car, but missed, and the man was able to get away again. ... With police following him, McCusker made his way to St. Charles Avenue, going out of his way to knock down any signs advertising construction, Arey said. Police spokeswoman Bambi Hall said McCusker's car came to a stop on the neutral ground of Jefferson Avenue just to the lake side of St. Charles. Police said they pulled him out of the car to handcuff him, but he resisted. They had to Taser McCusker to subdue and handcuff him, police said.
All the while he was yelling expletives and begging them to kill him, police said.
Arey said this is one of many examples of the mental damage that Katrina has caused, and he sees it all the time now.
McCusker's tragic breakdown is an extreme example, but in newsrooms across the state, these are the kinds of feelings plaguing writers, reporters and photographers. We have been unexpectedly plunged into non-stop disaster reporting. And we have to be vigilant about staying focused and doing our jobs well, because it's never been more important for us to give our readers a clear, informed picture about what's happening right now in Louisiana.
I have never been prouder to live and be a part of a community than I was last autumn after the storms. On one hand, it's tempting to say that the response of our residents and citizens was nothing short of heroic. From Greg Davis' leadership and countless volunteers' actions at the Cajundome to the relief efforts from local nonprofits, churches and businesses, all those things were an incredible beacon of hope in the face of almost unspeakable darkness. In my neighborhood alone, I was overwhelmed on an almost daily basis by the kindness of neighbors. I had as many as 12 people living in my house at one time, for four months. And people came over almost every night, bringing food, clothes, and toys and bikes for the kids. When we ran out of room for evacuees in our house, one of our neighbors took in one of my friends and former co-workers and his very large Rottweiler dog and put them up for two months. One neighbor who lived one street over that I had never met saw all the cars in our driveway and realized the situation, and brought over a check for $500. I was practically speechless and tried to refuse it, but she wouldn't have any of it. I could contribute to a relief fund, she said, but here I know it's going directly into the hands of people who need it.
As time has passed and I try and look back on the events of last year, I know now that our response was simply a beautiful reaffirmation of the way Acadiana lives: we love and take pride in our families, neighbors, friends, cities, and there was no question that we simply would do anything and everything in our power to help. That is something we should all take immense pride in and never, ever forget.
That said, Lafayette is in a very strange and unique position after last year's hurricanes. For the most part, we're OK. We're on high ground, we sustained little wind damage, and within a few months, life as we know it returned to "normal." While our neighbors and friends to our east and west continue to endure immeasurable heartache and challenges on a daily basis, our lives could continue as if nothing ever happened. We can do our jobs, take our kids to school, go the movies, have a burger at Judice Inn, take a walk in Girard Park and barbecue and watch a baseball game while we're off on the weekend.
And Lafayette has its own challenges and issues. Many of you know The Independent Weekly has filed a lawsuit against UL Lafayette President Ray Authement's office after the university refused to release documents related to the Johnston Street horse-farm land swap deal. Our city council members seem to spend most of their time pointing fingers at each other and descending into endless petty disputes. Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home initiative is headed to the Supreme Court after more than a year of lawsuits. And City-Parish President Joey Durel is stumping and asking voters to support a new tax in Lafayette to fund infrastructure.
It's always been our mission at The Independent Weekly to be relentlessly local, and to cover the issues and stories in Lafayette and Acadiana with the insight that you won't find in other local newspapers. That mission hasn't changed, and it will never change. But our mission has expanded, because of the importance of covering hurricane-related issues.
If we decide that we have hurricane fatigue, and we're tired of reading about the inept politicians and the struggles of New Orleans and Cameron Parish, we could tune it out. And while we're tuning it out, we're also reaping unexpected benefits from what happened after the storms. Acadiana's housing market has exploded, new jobs are being created, sales tax revenues are way up and rebuilding tax incentives are leading to business expansion. And let's face it, we were all already leading busy lives before the storms, so it's understandable if we don't have time to keep up with all these hurricane-related issues on a regular basis.
If we fall into this trap of complacency, we're making the biggest mistake of our lives.
New Orleans provides one-third of the state's revenue, and it's a crucial port city and Louisiana's largest tourism destination. The fishermen affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita provide a large portion of our seafood industry. The politicians who convene in Baton Rouge steer our state's policies and destiny with their decisions. If we stick our heads in the sand and ignore what's happening in the rest of the state, we're going to pay a heavy price: in the loss of revenue, our influence in Washington, D.C., and most importantly, the loss of our friends and neighbors to other states.
That's why we hope you'll find this issue of The Independent Weekly a special one, as our writers and photographers traveled across Louisiana to report on where we stand a year after these two massive storms. From investigative reports to poignant narrative journalism, these stories reflect the unprecedented emotions and challenges facing Louisiana and its people.
I urge you to stay involved and educated not only with the issues facing Lafayette, but the issues facing our entire state. We cannot turn our backs on our fellow Louisiana residents who need us so much right now ' their hardships and losses are our hardships and losses.